To say that women are poorly represented in Westminster is a gross understatement. The election results have seen the percentage of female MPs rise – but only from 19.5 per cent, to 22 per cent. It seems politics is still a man’s game.
1997 saw a record number of 120 female MPs elected to the House of Commons – 101 were Labour party politicians. The media named them “Blair’s Babes” – a patronising term which seemed to suggest that an influx of women into parliament was a novelty. Those women did not need Blair, nor did they need cheap sexual innuendo. They needed respect.
Thirteen years on, and sexism is alive and well. The general election campaign included a perverse contest between the party leaders wives, dumbed down to a fashion parade between Sarah Brown and Samantha Cameron. Thankfully, Miriam Gonzalez Durantez made clear that her career as an international lawyer, and her children, came well before photo appearances for husband Nick Clegg.
If you want to see how bleak the political scene really is for women, you can start at home – Leeds. In the eight Leeds constituencies, only 14.8 per cent of the candidates were women – seven out of 47 in the running. Rachel Reeves secured a seat, becoming the Labour MP for Leeds West – but the other seven seats were won by male candidates, with five constituencies having all-male candidate lists. Two hundred and five of the 646 constituencies had all-male candidate lists at the general election.
The Fawcett Society, the leading charity for gender equality in the UK, has gathered considerable evidence that suggests that when selecting party candidates, there is still great bias towards the “white male, middle aged, middle class norm”.
Labour addressed this with the Sex Discrimination (Election Candidates) Act 2002. This legislation legalised all-female candidate lists, and to date this has been the only method that has delivered real change in the representation of women in the House of Commons. Yet only ten constituencies had all-female lists in the 2010 election.
The Welsh and Scottish parliaments have shown what quotas can do – Wales had an even number of male and female MPs in 2003, and when quotas were dropped during the 2007 Scottish election, the number of female MSPs plummeted to only a third.
How are women’s issues and needs ever to be truly addressed by government if Westminster remains a male-dominated arena? How will we ever address and rectify the real injustices in British society? Women are paid 12.2 per cent less than men for full time work. Only seven rape cases out of every 100 reported to the police ends in a conviction on that charge. Approximately 30,000 women lose their jobs each year in the UK as a result of becoming pregnant – and in the FTSE 100, there are only four female chief executives.
It seems inherently wrong to me that despite the population of men and women in the UK being roughly equal (up until the age of 70), parliament fails to reflect this reality. Our elected representatives, in order to address the needs of all the electorate, need to be as diverse as the society we live in – and yet men still dominate the political sphere.
The Fawcett Society estimates that at the current rate of change, Labour would take 20 years to reach an equal number of male and female MPs, the Liberal Democrats would take twice as long, and the Conservatives would take a ridiculous 400 years before achieving gender equality in the Commons.
Why should women have to wait that long?